June 1, 2021

IN RE JACOB M. (AC 44233)


May 2021

TPR, Time Standards, Reasonable Efforts, Post-Termination Visitation Motions

Takeaway: Rejects procedurally unorthodox attempts by both parents to get post-termination visitation under In re Ava W.  As such, clear motions in appropriate TPR cases seeking orders of post-termination visitation should be filed.  Additionally, the Governor’s pandemic Executive Order lifting certain time limits, including the 120-day time limit for rendering judgments in civil cases, was not an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers; it was not error for the trial court in this case to deny parents’ motion for a mistrial on the basis of missing the 120-day deadline.

Parents filed separate appeals from the judgments terminating their parental rights. Both Natasha and Jacob are the biological children of Mother, and Jacob is the biological child of Father. The petitions were consolidated for trial.

The Appellate Court held that the parents could not prevail on their claim that the trial court, relying on an Executive Order issued by the Governor in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, improperly denied their joint motion for a mistrial on the basis of the court’s failure to render its judgments within 120 days of the completion of the trial as required by statute (§ 51-183b), as the time limitation in § 51-183b had been suspended by the Executive Order at the time the judgments were rendered.  The General Assembly set forth in statute (§ 28-9) a policy, which the Governor followed, that, upon the Governor’s declaration of a public health emergency pursuant to statute (§ 19-131a), the Governor may suspend any statute that conflicts with the efficient and expeditious execution of civil preparedness functions or the protection of the public health.  Here, such standards and limitations set forth by the Legislature were followed in the Executive Order suspending the 120 day requirement set forth in § 51-183b. Additionally, the Court found that a requirement of adherence to a strict time limitation on the rendering of judgments in civil cases at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when there were critical shortages in sanitizer and personal protective equipment, reasonably could have interfered with the health and safety of the judges of the Superior Court and courthouse staff, who reasonably would have had to enter courthouses in order to review materials and to perform tasks necessary for the rendering of civil judgments.  Moreover, the time limitation set forth in § 51-183b, contrary to Mother’s claim, was not jurisdictional, as § 51-183b related to the authority given to the Superior Court to render judgments in civil cases within a certain time frame, and did not pertain to the jurisdiction of the court to decide certain types of cases.

The Appellate Court also found that the trial court properly concluded that DCF had made reasonable efforts to reunify Mother with the children, based upon the evidence in the record.  DCF offered Mother many services over a number of years, including mental health treatment, parent mentoring services, visitation services, domestic violence counseling and transportation, as well as substance abuse treatment, and Mother attended a partial hospitalization program and an intensive outpatient program. Moreover, although DCF suspended visitation on the recommendation of a therapist, on the basis that the visits to Mother, who was at that time incarcerated, caused the children much emotional distress, DCF continued its reunification efforts by regularly inquiring with the children’s therapist about the children’s ability to resume visitation, and provided updates to Mother on the children.

Third, the Appellate Court found that the trial court properly concluded that DCF had made reasonable efforts to reunify Father with Jacob, based upon the evidence in the record.  DCF referred Father for substance abuse services to address his admitted opioid dependence, but he did not complete those programs successfully; the trial court also properly determined that it was reasonable for DCF not to have referred Father for mental health services when he denied having any mental health concerns.  Moreover, the Court found that DCF’s efforts regarding visitation were reasonable under the circumstances, wherein Jacob had negative reactions following visitation, and, although the court suspended visitation, DCF communicated with Father regularly and continually contacted the therapist to assess whether resumption of visitation was advisable.

Lastly, the Appellate Court conclude that the trial court’s determination that the termination of Father’s parental rights was in the best interest of Jacob was not clearly erroneous, as it was supported by the court’s findings and conclusions with respect to the applicable statutory (§ 17a-112 (k)) factors, as well as the court’s conclusion regarding Jacob’s need for permanency and stability.  In relying on the therapist’s recommendation that the children establish positive memories of their biological parents, Father failed to demonstrate that it was not in Jacob’s best interest to have his parental rights terminated, as the therapist recommended open adoption, and not reunification.  As such, the court reasonably found that Father was not prevented from having a meaningful relationship with Jacob due to the unreasonable acts or conduct of another person, specifically, Jacob’s foster mother, with whom Jacob had bonded, and Jacob’s therapist.  Rather, it was Father’s own actions that caused him not to have a meaningful relationship with Jacob.  Moreover, although Father alleged that DCF did not make reasonable efforts to reunite him with Jacob, including offering him services to improve his parenting skills or referrals for mental health concerns, the record indicated that Father denied that he had any mental health concerns, DCF offered him timely and appropriate services from the start of the case, and Father neither adjusted nor corrected his circumstances to make it in Jacob’s best interest to be returned to him.

The Appellate Court declined to review Mother’s claim that the trial court improperly denied her motion to intervene, filed after the trial court rendered judgments terminating her parental rights, in which she sought post-termination visitation with the children.  The record was inadequate to review this claim because the trial court did not file a memorandum of decision explaining its ruling, and Mother did not file a notice pursuant to the applicable rule of practice (§ 64-1 (b)), or a motion for articulation of the court’s factual and legal basis for its ruling.